Senior Pets and Osteoarthritis

Similar to ourselves, our pet’s bodies change as they reach their senior years.

You may notice that your older pet isn’t as mobile as before. Stairs and getting up after rest may be more difficult than before. They may lag behind on walks where, before, they wanted to go for forever-long walks. These are signs we frequently see with osteoarthritis. Although these signs are commonly attributed to “just getting old,” osteoarthritis is uncomfortable. There are ways we can help reduce this discomfort and increase their quality of life in their senior years.

Osteoarthritis (OA) is somewhat complicated because it frequently results from a number of problems coming together rather than just one. It is a general term referring to inflammation in the joints.

Some factors that may be involved with this include:

  • Body condition: being overweight is much more likely to result in OA
  • Body conformation: large-breed dogs are at a higher risk for OA than small dogs
  • Activity: While activity is good for our pet’s overall health, a lifetime of wear and tear has an effect on the joints
  • Past injuries/disease: Joint infections, Lyme disease, bone fractures, or amputated limbs can all predispose one or more joints to inflammation.
  • Joint abnormalities: Hip dysplasia, for example, can increase the risk

General signs you may notice include:

  • Difficulty rising from rest
  • Difficulty jumping onto furniture or into the car
  • Lagging behind on walks or not being able to go as far
  • Difficulty with stairs
  • Pain having limbs or joints touched
  • Aggression toward people or other animals

However, just because you may not notice any particular sign does not mean OA is not having an impact. It is important to know that other problems could cause similar signs. A more notable problem in large dogs is a cranial cruciate ligament tear (equivalent to an ACL tear in humans), in which case the ideal treatment is surgery. This is best diagnosed or ruled out by your veterinarian.

As OA is caused by multiple problems, it is often best managed by multiple routes. We often need to treat pets as individuals in this situation, as what works well for one pet may not work as well for another.

Weight Management

If your pet is overweight, weight loss can be a huge long-term benefit. More weight causes more pressure on the joints and increased inflammation. Weight loss will lighten the load on the joints as well as reduce stress on other body systems (cardiovascular, metabolic function, etc.).

Joint Support

Various supplements are available that appear to benefit joints. Various foods have these included in them directly, or there are also food additives. Cartrophen is an injectable form that can help as well. We generally start with weekly injections for 4 doses and then continue with monthly doses.

Pain management

Non-steroidal anti-inflammatories are often used to help directly reduce inflammation and help with pain. It is often best to check general blood work beforehand to ensure proper health before starting these medications, followed by periodic, ongoing monitoring. Blood work has the added benefit of screening for signs of organ dysfunction as well as providing a baseline for your pet should they get sick in the future.

Please never give your pet any medication of your own without consulting with your veterinarian. These medications may be toxic, the dose may be too high for our pets, or it may have negative interactions with other medications. So please always talk with your veterinarian before giving medicine at home.


Similar to people who undergo a traumatic event or injury, physiotherapy can be very helpful to support the joints and muscles. Underwater treadmills and hydrotherapy are great low-impact exercises for many pets. The therapeutic laser helps to reduce inflammation and is a great option for many pets, especially those who are restricted from the other modalities discussed. These options are available in Winnipeg, so contact your veterinarian to find out more information.

Changes at home

There are simple things that we can do at home to help make life easier for our pets with OA. Having raised food and water bowls, soft bedding, mats, or rugs along wood or tile flooring can all help to prevent slipping and strain on their limbs.


We often think about OA with dogs, but cats can also be affected. A lifetime of jumping from the heights that they do will do that. Signs are very similar to those of dogs, but for some, they may be subtler. They may not be as interested in being petted along with their back as they used to be. Or they have difficulty jumping onto couches or beds. Peeing or pooping outside the litter box could also be a sign, as most people have litter boxes in the basement, and discomfort with stairs may deter them from using them. Many of the treatments are the same as those we use on dogs. It is always important to note that just because our pet may not exhibit one sign, that does not mean they are not affected.

Long-term prognosis

OA can cause unnecessary suffering but properly managed, and we can substantially improve their quality of life for many pets. Talk to your veterinarian about what can be done to help your senior family member.


As with most things in medicine, prevention is far more effective than treatment. No matter the size of your pet, having a lean body condition will be the best way to prevent the onset of OA. Proper nutrition to help support bone and joints and regular exercise will also aid in prevention. Your veterinarian can help make a plan that works for you and your pet.

Written by: Dr. Michael Brown